Creation and Anarchy

The Work of Art and the Religion of Capitalism

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Giorgio Agamben
Translator(s): 
Adam Kotsko
Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics
  • Palo Alto, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , May
     2019.
     104 pages.
     $16.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781503609266.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Creation and Anarchy is a tidy collection of standalone essays or lectures by Giorgio Agamben on a variety of themes. While being discrete forays, the chapters hang together through various resonances and intertextual links. A number of themes show up that also connect to Agamben’s other works, allowing perennial themes in his corpus to be developed from new angles. Adam Kotsko’s lucid translation has continued his service to the field in making Agamben’s texts accessible to a wider readership.

Without framing or introduction, the book dives right in, first, to an archaeology of the work of art. Here Agamben takes up the question of work and the vocation of the artist and artistic production. He discerns a distinction and tension between labor or work, on one hand, and acts of creation, on the other. While both characterize human life, those whom we call artists have set themselves up in a particular negotiation of the overlaps and tensions between these two human impulses, a negotiation that comes to characterize their particular form of life.

The second chapter explores the act of creation, prompting Agamben’s reassertion of an ongoing theme in his corpus: the priority of potentiality and inoperativity. It is not simply that these precede acts of creation, but that they are larger than any such acts, as grounding possibilities and as traces that remain. In this sense, creation retains potentiality in the many possibilities that acts and works display in their trajectories over time. Here we are treated to a lovely insight on Agamben’s own vision for interpretation: finding an element in an author we love in order to develop it so extensively that “it is not possible to distinguish between what is ours and what belongs to the author we are reading” (15).

In an interesting echo with the “zone of indistinction” that Agamben has explicated in the politics of exception (see Homo Sacer, Stanford University Press, 1998), he also seeks an “impersonal zone of indifference” that marks this loving interpretive union with an author under such thorough analysis.

The third chapter on “the inappropriable” considers the relation of use to ownership and the implication for our understanding of poverty. Drawing on Franciscan insights and asserting Walter Benjamin over Martin Heidegger, Agamben defines poverty as being in relation to inappropriable goods, understanding that one can use without owning and that justice is the fundamental good—or state of being—that cannot be appropriated.

The fourth chapter considers the command and the ambiguity that arises from its proximity to the beginning (archê). The command, as origin and beginning, thus has no origin or beginning. He suggests that two ontological states exist in parallel and also in interrelation within Western tradition: the indicative, pertaining to being, and the imperative, where the command suggests the realm of potential and its transition into actuality.

The fifth and final chapter takes up the well-worn topic of “capitalism as religion.” Here Agamben takes his cue from Benjamin’s fragment on the theme, carrying forward the assertion that capitalism is a cult centered on guilt, operating self-referentially with no outside and no endpoint of redemption, where banks as credit granting institutions are the new high priests. Invoking Guy Debord, Agamben follows a line of interpretation that regards the sundering of the dollar from the gold standard as concomitant with the poststructuralist rupture of signifier from signified. Language has no referent in the real just as money is no longer grounded in gold as real value.

There is much to praise and critique in this work, as in anything by Agamben. I limit my remarks to some of the economic themes he addresses. The third chapter’s examination of use, ownership, and appropriation leads to some very suggestive insights about law and justice. Following Walter Benjamin, Agamben helps us to see that law only makes sense in relation to things possessed and hence in relation to property. This shows the interrelation between law and economy and indeed the reliance of law on certain economic presumptions and foundations, including the notion that there are alienable material values whose possession law most fundamentally helps to formalize and regulate. This relates not only to civil law and explicit matters of property but also to criminal law and the relation of juridical violence to notions of indebtedness—a theme Agamben explored in Homo Sacer.

Agamben leaves much to be desired, however, in his fifth chapter’s game of correspondences between capitalism and religion, a common and overplayed tactic that sheds little light on either term. There is nothing explanatory in simply declaring that money is now God, credit is the new form of faith, and bankers are the new priests. Agamben also astonishingly appears to believe that gold provides something like a “real” ground for money and that Nixon’s decision to let the dollar float was an epistemological watershed—ignoring, for instance, postbellum American debates between “gold bugs” and “greenbackers” a century earlier over money’s semiotic character. Jean Baudrillard (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Telos Press, 1981) and Jean-Joseph Goux (Symbolic Economies: After Marx and Freud, Cornell University Press, 1990) can be perhaps forgiven for their fascination with the striking parallels between money, language, and the sign in the 1980s, given the heyday of poststructuralism and their proximity to the end of Bretton Woods. Agamben’s intervention here, however, some forty years later, has not advanced the conversation and generally repeats their starstruck assertions about the semiotic mysteries of money.

This fascination with apparent monetary self-referentiality as quintessentially postmodern leads Agamben to assert that now “debt had lost all real consistency” and that credit “is founded solely on itself and . . . does not correspond to anything but itself” (67). He appears to imagine that there was a time when debt was grounded in something tangible and real, presumably the real value of the property lent or held as collateral. This overlooks the fact that the power and operations of debt have instead always been grounded in compulsion and enforcement through law. Agamben neglects the insights of his earlier explorations of archaic law as always already self-referential. It is the legal code’s self-referential founding violence, existing in debt to itself, that has made debt possible in societies ruled by sovereignty, property, and law not just since the 1980s but for the last five thousand years.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Devin Singh is Associate Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Giorgio Agamben is an Independent Scholar.

Adam Kotsko is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Shimer College.

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